16 May 2011

Germany's national character and unique traits in epic strategy

So I have been reading the article on Flash of Steel on Germany’s national character. I have to say it's a very interesting topic to look at and Troy Goodfellow does it plenty of justice.

I don't know what he is planning for it, but to me each of his posts just goes to show that the "national character" idea is thoroughly silly.

To be clear, I'll be speaking of computer strategy games such as Civilization which cover a long time period. How long? Age of Empires 3 is probably the shortest.

First off, the concept of a nation has changed a lot throughout history, and people did not always act as the nation-states we seem to be assuming they did. The Germany in World War 2 is obviously not just "Teutons with more tech". So when we have a "Germany" in games such as Civ, where this Germany remains Germany from the ancient eras into the future, we are already suggesting a very bizarre world which functions much more differently from ours. So there's already a problem with translating historical "Germany" which hasn't yet lasted 150 years (if what you mean by Germany is that state that Bismarck created which later went on to enter the two world wars). When you start writing up a "Germany" civ for your game, do you draw ideas from Nazi Germany? Western Germany? Today's Germany? Prussia? The Holy Roman Empire? The Teutonic tribes? As I said, they are not one and the same, and they don't share "traits". Or do you mash them all together into big ball of nonsense?

Second, there's the issue of traits themselves. In the last 50 or even 100 years, one thing Germany had a very well-known reputation for is excellence in engineering and manufacturing. Not really the ability to churn out a lot, but producing high-quality, reliable, well-designed machines. Think of the Mercedes-Benz automobiles, supposedly built like tanks. Somewhat relatedly, another thing people think of in regard to Germans of today is discipline. (To go off on a tangent, Germany has had a huge population of Turkish migrants since the 60s/70s which have not always been crazy about integrating, and I understand they have been a subject of much controversy there over the years, and still are. This has gone on for longer than WW2 and certainly is a huge contributor to what Germany is today, but you don't see that in any strategy games.)

Now I'm sure nobody has any funny ideas about how Germans have some genetic predisposition to being good at making reliable cars, or being disciplined. Again, it's not like the Teutons (or those before them) were much disciplined, and it's not like the Germans are really Teutons, and it's not like the Germans (of the last 150 years) have been around as a group for long enough to develop a meaningfully distinct gene pool. So it's a cultural thing.

But a culture of discipline, or technical excellence, or what have you does not just pop out of nowhere. It develops gradually over time, as a result of the environment in which a group of people exist, as well as other cultures they are in contact with, their history, and most likely also events of random chance. If the German people are disciplined today, it is because of their history.

But games like Civ are all about taking a blank slate and rewriting history. If you picked Germany, ended up alone on an island, focused only on culture, never entered a conflict let alone lose a world war and sign as overwhelming a treaty as the Versailles, why SHOULD your Germany have Panzers and disciplined troops? The circumstances which created those are simply not there! It should have crappy tanks, and crappy troops, because your people have never cared about war.

One could say, "But it's boring if Civ had only one civilization". And that's true. But once you notice the problems I've talked about, it just gets more confusing the more you think. So why not have the game model socio-cultural evolution? Why not start everyone without unique traits, using the civ only to select your city names (you gotta have SOME character, right?), and then grant unique traits to players over time based on how they have played?

Suppose you fought a big war (the game could look at how many resources’ worth of units were killed on both sides to tell a world war from a regional skirmish, for example, or the length of the conflict, or if the top 5 players are involved in it) and surrendered, having to give the victor a great deal of free stuff to convince them. Perhaps the game would look at whether you gave up any cities, whether the gold you must pay per turn is above a number or above a percentage of your GDP. If you pass the check for getting your ass kicked hard enough, you get a pop up: “National Socialist Revolution: Your armies are now more powerful, you get a bonus to production, and you can produce the following unique unit, which is a stronger version of the unit whose prerequisite tech you have most recently discovered.” Perhaps there would be drawbacks too. Perhaps suffering a big defeat again could lead to a “Leader deposed” message which revokes your traits. Perhaps when a trait is revoked, you get another trait which pushes you in the opposite direction. (to reflect the fact that Germany essentially lost two world wars, yet reacted very differently to the two, and to give the player some extra agency, the dialog could let you choose whether you accept the trait)

Some traits could only be attainable in certain eras. Some traits could be negated by a tech- even if discovered by other players. “The discovery of TECH by PLAYERCOUNTRY has spread to and disillusioned your people and you no longer receive the bonus from TRAIT.” Or perhaps so long as you refuse to trade or research the technology, your people remain sufficiently oblivious to keep giving you the bonus. Perhaps they don’t like you using this strategy, or perhaps if your empire has a history of being on the bleeding edge of science, putting off a certain tech makes them very unhappy, and if you have always lagged behind your people won’t care about the crazy customs of the foreigners.

You could have traits that work like skills in Morrowind-style RPGs: with every wonder you build you get a bonus to building wonders. Once you don’t build any for a while, the bonus decays as the culture of erecting monuments becomes a thing of the past for your people. Perhaps certain drastic events, such as large wars, significant defeats or victories, global climate events (with non-static traits suddenly it makes a lot of sense to have random global events), plagues, political/social/artistic movements (triggered by research?)…

Perhaps the game noticed that you haven’t been acquiring new cities for centuries, but recently discovered a new continent and have rapidly expanded there. It doesn’t need to know about “discovery of new land”, just looking for a spike in your cities found over time graph is enough. In that case you get a prompt, sacrifice a lot of economic gain from the new cities (penalty to gold production?) or risk revolt. If you do risk revolt, you better have the military strength to control the new lands on call, or you might end up with an American revolution like Britain once did.

And on that note, why is it that Civ-like games start with a number of “nations”, and at most the number decreases as time goes on? You could say that two thousand years ago, Europe “started” with one nation, Rome. And today, we have… Certainly not less. Why not occasionally throw up a message, “The cities of X, Y and Z are dissatisfied with your rules and are seceding. They call themselves PLAYER!”. Suddenly, the named cities change to a new color, and henceforth are controlled by a new AI player. Much like Civ5’s city states, you could make such rebel players not compete for global victory to make things even more interesting. The very act of fighting a civil war could also serve as a base or trigger for yet more traits. What’s nice is that Civ games, and many others , have long had happiness penalties associated with empire size, and the revolt very nicely builds on top of that. Now you can actually piss off your populace to such a degree as to spawn a new enemy, and not just refuse building tanks for a few turns.

Something like these “traits” already exists in Civ games: Great persons. It’s more complicated on the whole but for Civ5 generals at least, every time you kill a unit you get a chance to receive a great general. (The name is randomly selected but if you are German, it should be a great German general, or perhaps even a great German general from the era you are currently in, or fictional for cases like Aztecs in 1937) So in the end, if you go to war a lot, you get great generals. Perfect!

Why not extend this? Every time you move a unit into a forest tile, there could be a 0.1% chance of receiving a trait that negates movement penalty for forests and gives a small combat bonus. (To make it less dependent on chance, you could say that every time you move into a forest, there’s 10% chance for the game engine to secretly assign a “forest point” to you, which of course decay with time, and once you get 100 points you get the trait.) Suddenly, players who have spawned near lots of hills get bonuses and perhaps unique units specializing in, hills! (just like the Inca in Civ5).

Since Civ AIs already act as if there is such a trait system in place (e.g. Montezuma always wants to fight as much as possible, as if to get war-related traits) you will have AI Aztecs really acting like Aztecs, and really having the historically appropriate traits. Whereas the player will be able to make use of his slightly exaggerated agency to take Mongolia, and built it into a scientific and economic forerunner of the modern world- change history in a meaningful way, according to his wishes, and force his own empire, with its own character- a premise that could be realized far better than any game has been able to do so far, I think.

The traits themselves could even be generated semi-randomly like loot in RPGs such as Torchlight, along with “unique” traits corresponding to important real-world events. The same goes for unique units.

No comments:

Post a Comment